CTE and Herschel Walker: the problem with politicizing science

Photo credit: Julia Monteiro Martins

In many ways, Georgia congressional candidate Herschel Walker is the average conservative politician. He has publicly supported strict bans on abortion, expanding police budgets, President Donald Trump and increasing border security– in step with the mainstream Republican party.

Despite his campaign being punctuated by the typical kind of controversy in American politics in the 2020s, one sordid example being the revelation that the self-proclaimed “pro-life” Walker paid a mistress to get an abortion, the most unique aspect of his campagin is not political, but neurological.

Walker is not a politician, as his campaign website proudly states. Instead, his reputation going into the 2022 election cycle comes from his 14-year-long NFL career, 1999 induction into the College Football Hall of Fame and time playing Division I football at the University of Georgia. While Walker’s pre-existing fame from his football career has given him an advantage with Georgia voters over his competitors, it has also sparked debate over whether he is mentally fit to hold public office.

After speaking incoherently at campaign events and television appearances, as well as facing accusations of domestic violence, Walker has attracted speculation from experts that his years playing football have damaged his brain to the point that he does not have the mental capacity to carry out the responsibilities he would have if elected.

It is understandable that those who disagree with Walker politically would jump at the chance to prove that he is medically unfit for public office. But looking at the current scientific evidence about the effects that football has on the brain makes the situation less clear-cut than Walker’s critics make it out to be.

In articles discussing Walker’s mental functioning, the acronym CTE is often used. CTE stands for Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, which is the proposed diagnosis for those who suffer from neurodegeneration after repeated head injuries, usually from contact sports like football. Symptoms are thought to include loss of memory and cognitive function, irrational mood swings, and in severe cases, trembling similar to that caused by Parkinson’s Disease. The condition is difficult to diagnose, though, because it can currently only be detected posthumously.

There have been many high-profile cases where football players with suspected or confirmed CTE cases behave erratically in public, or even commit violent crimes. One recent example is the case of former NFL player Philip Adams, who fatally shot six people as well as himself in April 2021. His autopsy report confirmed that his brain showed signs of CTE. O.J. Simpson, arguably the most famous ex-NFL player to be convicted of a violent crime, believes that he may have the disease, but a diagnosis cannot be made while he is alive.

When a famous athlete like Walker publicly behaves in an unstable manner, CTE is often suspected by the public, creating renewed interest in the disease. However, according to practicing neurologists, the sensationalization of CTE has led to the spread of misinformation about what the condition actually is and isn’t.

Dr. Doug Johnson-Greene, neuropsychologist and professor at the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine, says the medical community lacks consensus on whether CTE exists as a specific condition in the first place.

“There isn’t essentially a definitive diagnostic entity known as CTE,” says Greene, explaining that the condition should be treated as a hypothesis rather than a concrete set of symptoms.

Greene also states that even when operating under the assumption that CTE exists, there is not yet definitive evidence proving that it is always caused by repeated concussions like those experienced in contact sports.

“While there’s certainly some evidence to suggest that repeated concussions due to contact sports like football may result in neurological conditions, it’s far from being conclusive yet,” says Greene, maintaining that many people who experience repeated concussions do not develop CTE symptoms.

Dr. Lauren Shapiro, associate professor and researcher of traumatic brain injury at the Miller School, expresses a similar viewpoint.

“There are many different factors that may play a role in a football player’s risk for neurodegenerative conditions. Duration of play is just one of those factors,” says Shapiro, maintaining that no one can definitively say that a long football career will result in CTE.

Given the discrepancy between media discussion of CTE and the actual scientific consensus surrounding the condition, it is evident that public perception of the disease has been severely distorted and sensationalized. This is intensified by the political angle brought to the discussion surrounding Walker’s candidacy- his opponents have a vested interest in finding evidence that the disease exists in the way it is perceived by the public.

Using unreliable science to indicate that a candidate is unfit for office would be disingenuous. Rather than relying on unsubstantiated claims of brain damage, critics of Walker should point to his past accusations of domestic violence as a more legitimate justification for the assertion that he cannot hold public office.

Although misconceptions about CTE are common, there are still risks associated with contact sports like football. While researchers maintain that an outright ban on the sports would be unnecessary, there are safety measures that should be taken.

“There have been tremendous resources dedicated to the prevention of head injuries in American football and I do believe the game can be made safer,” says Shapiro.

Greene says that one of the most effective ways to prevent the risks associated with frequent concussions is to wait for enough time after an injury to continue playing.

“Repeated concussions look as if they take a greater toll in terms of cognitive functioning,” says Greene, stating that this is why stringent return-to-play guidelines are necessary. He mentions that Florida’s guidelines allow for relative safety while playing the sport.

Although claiming that an opposing candidate is medically unfit for office is tempting, most of Walker’s opponents are lay people without the proper scientific expertise to determine this.

The next time CTE is brought up in a high-profile case, the public and the media should take care to do more than cursory research into the condition, and find out that the truth is not as clear as it is made out to be.

Kris Berg is a senior majoring in English literature and print journalism. They are originally from Westchester, N.Y. and aspire to live and work in New York City after graduation.